From its beginnings in the eighteenth century, evolution—the idea that organisms are descended through a gradual development, ruled by natural law, from original, simple, primitive forms—was intermingled with thoughts of culture. In fact, it is difficult to distinguish the two, since early evolutionists tended to start with a theory about culture, generalize to the biological world, then use biology to support beliefs about culture. In particular, especially as represented in the writings of the English physician and naturalist Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802, the grandfather of Charles) and the French biologist Jean Baptiste de Lamarck (1744–1829), one encounters ideas about social and cultural progress. Darwin, Lamarck, and others promoted the belief that knowledge and society can be improved through unaided human effort; such ideas were read into the animal and plant realm (monad to man, to use the popular phrase), then read back into the human realm to support ideas of social and cultural progress.
Three problem areas
The study of biocultural evolution presents three problematic issues. First, there is the fact of evolution and its causes as applied to the organic world generally. The big question concerning evolution is the "mechanism," and the major debate is over the adequacy and extent of the causal process proposed by Charles Darwin (1809–1882) in his Origin of Species in 1859. Does one accept, and to what extent does one accept, the mechanism of natural selection, according to which more organisms are born than can survive and reproduce, producing a struggle that results in a differential reproduction of the fittest, which leads to change in the direction of adaptation? Should the mechanism of selection be limited or replaced? The consensus among practicing biologists is that selection is extremely significant, and, although there is disagreement, most would say that selection is by far the most important mechanism.
A second problem concerns the application of evolutionary theory to humans. Few scientists today would dispute that human beings evolved, but again there is debate about the extent to which selection is significant, with nearly all agreeing that it has had some significant role. The hand and the eye, for example, are adaptations produced by selection. How much and how far selection has affected and shaped human behavior and thought, however, is still a matter of (sometimes bitter) debate. Some researchers, particularly those called human sociobiologists or evolutionary psychologists, grant selection a major role in determining human behavior and thought. Others, in particular cultural anthropologists and those with ideologies opposed to certain aspects of biology (a group that often includes feminists, Marxists, and postmodernists), tend to downplay the importance of biology in shaping behavior. Most concede to biology some role, but even here there is dispute. For example, male and female (human) physical differences are obviously a function of biology; whether male and female psychological and social differences are a function of biology is less clear.
A third problem is the question of cultural evolution or change. There is, of course, continuity in science or religion. Albert Einstein (1879–1955) did not just appear, he arose out of a physics tradition that dates back at least to Isaac Newton (1642–1727). Christianity did not just appear but goes back to Judaism, with introgressions of a greater or lesser extent from Greek philosophy. The question is whether one can develop a theory of such change, and if so what kind of theory. In particular, do biological theories help one to understand cultural change? Moreover, does natural selection offer a causal insight into the way and reasons that culture changes? From Newton to Einstein, from Moses to Paul, are the processes that rule such changes the same process that ruled the evolution of the reptile to the bird, or the monkey to the human being?
Assuming acceptance of the first point (evolution in general) and of the second point (evolution of humans), then the third point (cultural evolution) becomes the critical question. If one accepts the possibility of cultural evolution of some kind—and it is hard not to, at least in a general sense—then does one start with the second point (evolution of humans) and work to the third point (cultural evolution)? Or does one jump straight to the third point (cultural evolution)? In other words, is cultural evolution autonomous in some sense, sitting at the summit of the biological sciences (as many cultural anthropologists would argue), or does cultural evolution arise as a consequence of human biological evolution? And returning to the issue of causes, what role does selection play in this process, and how does it affect one's answer?
It is fair to say that Erasmus Darwin and Lamarck were evolutionists, and they applied evolutionary theory to humans, although neither was aware of natural selection, though in Erasmus Darwin's writings there are hints of sexual selection, the competition for mates. Darwin and Lamarck were not, however, sufficiently sophisticated in their thinking to address cultural evolution; it is probably best to say that they thought of cultural evolution as autonomous, but fueled by the same processes as biological evolution, chiefly the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Although such a view is now known as Lamarckism, it also appeared in writings by Erasmus Darwin. People often note that the Lamarckian evolutionary mechanism of the inheritance of acquired characteristics seems cultural. They are right. It was taken from culture, so it is not surprising that it can be read back to culture. Much the same can be said of later pre-Darwinian evolutionists. However, by the mid-1850s, cultural evolution was definitely being seen as autonomous, although biology and culture were considered ultimately part of the same process, in which things moved in Lamarckian fashion from simple to complex, from homogeneous to heterogeneous. As the philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) remarked:
Now we propose in the first place to show, that this law of organic progress is the law of all progress. Whether it be in the development of the Earth, in the development of Life upon its surface, in the development of Society, of Government, of Manufactures, of Commerce, of Language, Literature, Science, Art, this same evolution of the simple into the complex, through successive differentiations, hold throughout. From the earliest traceable cosmical changes down to the latest results of civilization, we shall find that the transformation of the homogeneous into the heterogeneous, is that in which Progress essentially consists. (Spencer 1857)
Spencer was not much interested in selection, even though the idea occurred to him independently of Darwin. Others took a similar approach to Spencer but included selection in their theories. Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895) was probably the first to argue that there is a struggle for existence among ideas, and the fittest win. Einstein triumphed over Newton because Einstein's ideas are in some way better than Newton's. For Huxley, who invented the term agnostic, Darwin beat out Christianity because Darwin's ideas were better than Christianity.
What about Darwin himself? He certainly wrote about humans and was interested in culture. At times he sounds as if he believed culture to be reasonably autonomous, but one senses that he was not convinced of this. In the Descent of Man (1871) he is more inclined to start with human evolution and then work outward and backward to culture. Morality, for example, has biological value because it helps keep the tribe together. Thus, there is evolution toward a moral sense, which then feeds back to biology because creatures that are more moral are also more biologically successful. Similarly, social practices, particularly social sexual practices, start with biology, get encoded into culture, and then feed back into biology. Even capitalism can be conceived in Darwinian terms as something that aids evolution and hence is cherished and adaptive.
In general, it seems fair to say that for the century after Darwin, the biology to culture approach did not thrive. Thanks to the popularity of Spencer and his followers, as well as to the rise of the social sciences and to the difficulty of understanding the biology of behavior and thought, cultural evolution was considered to be a process in its own right. The philosopher William James (1842–1910), for instance, takes a Darwinian approach in his Principles of Psychology (1890), although in the more philosophical Pragmatism (1907), he treats culture as more autonomous. And although Spencer is no longer highly regarded as a thinker, and although few would subscribe to Spencer's beliefs about the nature and course of evolution, many still treat culture as Spencer did, as autonomous but with causes that are analogous to biology. In fact, many follow in the steps of Huxley in seeing selection as key to understanding cultural, particularly scientific, change.
Such an approach is often called evolutionary epistemology. Its best-known proponent was the philosopher Karl Popper (1902–1994), who combined an evolutionary approach with his own criterion for distinguishing science from nonscience: falsifiabilty. One starts with a problem, say a discovery that seems not to fit with existing theory. One then proposes an idea or hypothesis intended to solve the problem, or more likely, one proposes a number of ideas or hypotheses. One then subjects the ideas to rigorous testing, choosing the idea that survives or solves the problem best. All the others must be rejected, including ideas or hypotheses one may have held earlier. In effect, a change has occurred through a process analogous to natural selection. One then continues until another problem arises.
Those sympathetic to Popper's approach include Stephen Toulmin and David Hull, the latter having applied the approach to the eclipse of traditional evolutionary methods of biological classification with the new cladistic approach. This is a method of classification that uses only shared characteristics as the method of classification, aiming to represent lines of descent and nothing else. Richard Dawkins's theory about units of belief called memes, which are analogous to genes, also fits here. Dawkins believes that memes invade brains (rather like viruses) and then multiply and succeed in a Darwinian fashion, inasmuch as they have good cultural adaptations. Religion, in particular, is something that Dawkins thinks has no objective truth but nevertheless succeeds because it has good adaptations. It exploits people's need to belong and their need for comforting answers about life after death and other matters.
Thomas Kuhn (1922–1996), who is usually regarded as representing an approach to the understanding of science diametrically opposed to that of Popper, also liked to think of his "paradigm" theory of science as evolutionary. A paradigm is proposed, and another is rejected, in Darwinian fashion. Popper was a realist, committed to the idea of an independent, real world, unlike Kuhn, for whom reality, inasmuch as it exists, is a function of human perception. The important question of progress remains. Is science progressive? Does it progress toward an understanding of the real world, or is it simply going nowhere and just subject to fashion? Popper certainly thought of his epistemology as progressive. Kuhn, who was more ambiguous, saw progress in a Darwinian sense, in which certain ideas are better than rivals, rather than in an absolute sense, in which some ideas are better on some independent scale. Dawkins would probably take an even more relativistic approach than Kuhn.
With the rise of human sociobiology (or evolutionary psychology) there is an increasing interest in the Darwinian approach to culture. This interest results, in part, from dissatisfaction with the alternative approach. But if culture is Darwinian, then how can one explain the fact that biological mutations are random (in the sense of undirected), whereas cultural mutations are apparently nonrandom? The sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, working with physicist Charles Lumsden, argues that culture is founded on various rules of thought, which he calls epigenetic rules, or which might be called "innate dispositions." As the philosopher W. V. O. Quine (1908–2000) argued, mathematical rules or the laws of logic may be ingrained in human biology because protohumans who thought logically were more likely to survive than those who did not. So culture, which can then elaborate in ways unknown to biology, nevertheless has its base in biology. It is not so much that Einstein's ideas beat out Newton's in a struggle for existence, but that both theories are based on rules that are rooted in biology. The success of one over the other is simply an observation, and not really biological at all.
A number of scholars, including Wilson and Michael Ruse, have applied this approach to morality, arguing that supreme imperatives, like the Christian love commandment, are held because those human ancestors who took them seriously were more successful than those who did not. Such an approach does not preclude cultural developments alongside those of biology. For example, whether it is ever obligatory to tell lies—as to a child dying of cancer—is not something determined by natural selection, although the tendency to be kind to such children certainly is.
What of religion in all of this? Wilson certainly thinks that religion is promoted by biology inasmuch as it reinforces morality and promotes group harmony and cohesion. Like Dawkins, however, he is something of a nonrealist on these matters and thinks that religious beliefs are not objectively true. Indeed, he would replace Christianity with a better myth (his word), namely Darwinian materialism. Others who take this approach, including the ethologist Konrad Lorenz (1903–1989), incline to a more realist approach. Whether or not they themselves accept religious beliefs as true, they would allow the possibility that they could be found true.
There are, in fact, scholars who apply biology to an understanding of religion. They do not treat religion as culturally autonomous but as a system of beliefs that can feed back into biology and vice versa. In other words, they would probably not regard such beliefs as innate but as one of a cluster of characteristics that have biological, and not just cultural, adaptive advantage, and hence serve as an aid to the possessors. Religious beliefs maintain a kind of halfway position between the two extremes described above (culture as autonomous and culture as an epiphenomenon of biology). Primatologist Vernon Reynolds and R. Tanner, a student of religion, have argued that different religions speak to different biologically adaptive needs. Using standard biological theory, which distinguishes between adaptations that are needed when resources are not stable or predictable and adaptations that are needed when resources are stable and predictable, they argue that religions reflect these conditions. Their theory predicts that organisms will tend to have numerous offspring that require minimal parental care during periods of instability or unpredictability, and few offspring requiring much care during periods of stability. Reynolds and Tanner argue that in a place like Great Britain, which has stable resources, one finds (expectedly) a religion like Anglicanism that stresses restraint and care, whereas in a place like Ireland, where resources fluctuate, one finds Catholicism with its exhortation to have many children. Other practices discussed by Reynolds and Tanner include food rules and prohibitions (as in Judaism), attitudes toward women, and much more.
Even though it is now nearly 150 years since the Origin of Species appeared (and two hundred since the start of evolutionary thinking), it is probably too early to say that a generally acceptable biocultural theory has been formulated. There are, however, many stimulating, if controversial, ideas, which promise to cast light on culture, including science and religion, and the relationship between them.
See also Culture, Origins of; Evolution, Biological; Evolutionary Epistemology; Evolutionary Ethics; Evolutionary Psychology; Human Nature, Physical Aspects; Sociobiology
hull, david. science as a process: an evolutionary account of the social and conceptual development of science. chicago: university of chicago press, 1988.
lumsden, charles j., and wilson, edward o. genes, mind, and culture: the coevolutionary process. cambridge, mass.: harvard university press, 1981.
popper, karl r. unended quest: an intellectual autobiography. lasalle, ill.: open court, 1976.
reynolds, vernon, and tanner, r. the biology of religion. london: longman, 1983.
ruse, michael. taking darwin seriously: a naturalistic approach to philosophy, 2nd edition. buffalo, n.y.: prometheus, 1983.
spencer, herbert. "progress: its law and cause." westminster review 67 (1857): 244–267.
toulmin, stephen. human understanding. oxford: clarendon, 1972.